Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Alternative Economics: Usufruct Zones

A few weeks back, I wrote a brief piece about how usufruct could/should work in a society with a different conception of property law. I made the assumption that it would be some sort of anarchist society, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

There are currently hundreds of millions of people around the world who live their lives by the unwritten laws of usufruct property. They're squatters. For the most part very poor, they live primarily in slums around the major cities of the world's poor nations. They have no land title. They have no deeds. And they don't have the kind of political power that allow them to manufacture such evidence of property. Remember, every title deed we now have is, essentially, a fantasy given force by a mixture of commonly held custom and government force.

Some economists have recently suggested that the best thing we could do for squatters (some of whom have built entire fairly nice squatter cities) is to give them title to their land. It would give them the ability to borrow against a new source of capital and help them to better themselves. This is, in fact, a good argument. But consider an alternative.

We could designate some areas as usufruct zones. Outside, normal property law would hold, thus pacifying the property-owning powerful. Inside (on land that nobody else wants anyway) usufruct would be the law of the land. With usufruct recognized by governments, the occupiers would have the advantages of ownership, including the ability to borrow against their new property. More important, they would have much greater security than they now enjoy.

This idea could have its greatest impact in the poor world, but don't discount the benefit it could give to people in the west, either. Remember, there are squatters aplenty in every western city, but they tend to take over vacant houses rather than building their own. Remember the people who work full time but have to sleep in their cars because they can't even afford rent. Or the homeless people, pitching tents and building shacks in ravines, being moved along constantly by the police.

We would have to give up a lot of control over usufruct zones to make them work. Building codes would have to be lightly enforced, if at all. But remember, well-built structures are in the best interest of the inhabitants. They'll get there eventually, if we give them a chance and time. And if we don't, then they'll still be living in tents in ravines, or sleeping in their cars. Which would you rather have, someone with a solid, if tiny, home of their own and clear ownership through occupancy, or someone who doesn't dare to own more things than he can carry in a shopping cart, and who doesn't know where he'll spend his next night?

Friday, November 18, 2005

What's Black and white and going to court?

Eight criminal counts.

Up to forty years in prison.

Conrad Black in an orange jumpsuit and leg irons.

I'm so happy I could almost cry.

There are few people on earth who need humbling more than Black, and I'm actually confident that he will go down for this. David Radler has copped a plea and will testify against his old buddy. Radler knows where all the bodies are buried, in the mess that was the Hollinger shareholder robbery scheme.

Not only is Black a thief, but he and his wife are two of the biggest aristocratic robber barons of the modern world. They openly despise those lower than them in the social and economic hierarchy. Reading a number of Black speeches and essays back to back, you see the word "envy" appear startlingly often. Black seems to believe that any criticism of him, whether of his business practices, his editorial policy, or his literary endeavors, is motivated by envy of his wealth and position.

For the record, I do not envy Conrad Black his wealth, his lifestyle, or his silly ermine-fringed red cape and title. I dislike his politics intensely, I despise his arrogance, and I am repulsed by his grasping need for public adulation.

I want nothing from Black, except for him to go away, and shut the hell up.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Elegant Decay

I admit, I'm strange in a lot of ways. There's the weird politics, the dinosaur fixation, the thing where I write SF and fantasy. But those are shared with a lot of people, including at least a few I know. My fascination with decaying and abandoned human structures doesn't seem to be that widely shared.

So I was excited to find the featured entry on Wikipedia today is about Dogpatch USA, an abandoned theme park in Arkansas. It was based on the Lil Abner cartoon characters, opened in the late 1960s and initially did well. It started struggling soon, went through ownership changes, bad management, and eventually was killed off by competition and the fact that kids don't know about Lil Abner anymore.

There's something really beautiful about nature reclaiming human structures. The dead buildings are haunting as they slowly merge back into the landscape. Check out these pics, apparently taken by a couple of urban explorers who braved the terrifying No Trespassing signs to take a look.

I've never explored abandoned places, beyond a few empty lots near my home. I'd like to someday.

Friday, November 04, 2005

In other news: Not all US congressmen are morons

The ridiculous Kelo vs. New London decision has just been gutted by the US House of Representatives. This is some of the best news that has come out of the states since, well, since Scooter Libby was indicted. Or since Bush's approval rating dropped again. It's been a good week.

Background: The Kelo case was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision handed down earlier this year. Mrs. Kelo owned a house that was, I believe, former Army Base housing she had bought years earlier in New London, Conneticut. It wasn't big or fancy, but it was bought and paid for.

The New London civic government decided they wanted a big pharmaceutical plant to be built on the site to generate jobs/tax revenue. They tried to kick Kelo off her land to complete the package and give the land to the developers. The developers and government (hereafter refered to as "the asshats") dragged the case all the way up to the Supremes, who decided that community betterment (read: tax revenue and corporate profits) trumped any rights an individual might hold. Nice one, guys. Way to fight creeping totalitarianism there.

But the House has ganged up on the decision. From SFGate.com:

Conservative defenders of private property and liberal protectors of the poor joined in an overwhelming House vote to prevent local and state governments from seizing homes and businesses for use in economic development projects.

The House legislation, passed 376-38, was in response to a widely criticized 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court last June that allowed eminent domain authority to be used to obtain land for tax revenue-generating commercial purposes.

That decision, said the House's third-ranked Republican, Deborah Pryce of Ohio, "dealt a blow to the rights of property owners across the country."

The bill would withhold for two years all federal economic development funds from states and localities that use economic development as a rationale for property seizures. It also would bar the federal government from using eminent domain powers for economic development.

It now goes to the Senate, where Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced similar legislation.

I love the fact that it's bipartisan, and I suspect both sides aren't as far apart as private property vs. protecting the poor. If the poor actually managed to get a little bit of private property, it damn well needs to be protected.

Cyborg Eyeball!

Well, not quite. But it is pretty damn nifty. Via Future Feeder, an implantable miniature telescope has been developed and is in phase two and three trials. That's human volunteer trials.

The device is designed for people with age-related macular degeneration, in which the centre of vision is degraded and only the peripheral vision is left. From the rather scanty information on the website, it looks like it's not anything like a complete cure. You get one telescope implanted in one eye, to give you back some centre-of-field vision. The other eye is left alone to provide peripheral vision (is it damaged in the eye with the telescope?).

This implies an interesting stage somewhere between a disability and a complete cure. I imagine that with so many other small, implantable devices, like cochlear implants for the deaf and camera/brain implant combos to provide a version of sight for the blind, we are entering a new stage.

The rather awkward phrase "differently abled" has been tossed around for some time to describe people who used to be called disabled or handicapped. It might be more appropriate for people in this new middle ground of technology-mediated ability ranges.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Alternate Economics: Usufruct

It sounds like an artificial sweetener (Mmmmmm. Usufruct (tm) has all the great taste with just half the calories!) but it's actually a different way of looking at property rights.

Most people never think about where property rights come from, and when we have an alternative view of property slapped in our faces, it can knock us right down. Think about the stereotypical hippie character in some bad '60s movie screaming "Property is theft!" What the hell does that mean?

I always thought it was a socialist/Marxist thing until I started reading about anarchism a year ago, and discovered the phrase sprang from the pen of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to call himself an anarchist. He also wrote that "property is freedom," because he knew about consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds.

What he was getting at, in those simple little phrases, was that he, and most anarchists and socialists since him, don't agree with the way property rights exist in our current society.

Thought experiment: You own one (1) acre of land. By what right do you own it? Well, you bought it from the guy who owned it before you. And he from the person before him, and so on. But in North America, those chains of ownership aren't very long. Eventually, we find someone who settled empty land, or actively swiped it by kicking out/killing the natives. And in Europe or Asia or Africa, you see the same chains of ownership, interupted by occasional theft by men armed with rifle, musket, matchlock, halberd, broadsword, gladius or pointed stick, as appropriate to the era. All land occupied by humans was stolen from other humans at some point or another, and the paperwork was filled in later to make it look like a legal sale. It hardly seems like a reliable basis for a system of ownership, does it?

To replace this system, usufruct has been suggested. Simply put, it means you own what you use. When you stop using it, you cease to own it. If you find unused land or resources, you can start using them yourself. Murray Bookchin, an eco-anarchist, put it this way:

"the principle of usufruct, the freedom of individuals in a community to appropriate resources merely by the virtue of the fact they are using them. . . Such resources belong to the user as long as they are being used. Function, in effect, replaces our hallowed concept of possession."

Usually, radicals like to scream slogans like "Property is Theft!" without explaining what they would replace our current system with, which is just bad public relations. If you think about usufruct, it doesn't seem that bad. You live in your house, play lawn darts in the back yard, plant a little garden? You own it, and the community will support your ownership of it, either through some sort of free-market court system or a voluntary jury. The same goes for your car, your wristwatch, your iPod, your dog, your socket wrench set, your collection of small bits of string in the junk drawer.

If you rent an apartment or a basement suite, congratulations! You now own a portion of the building, and are essentially a member of a condo association or part owner of a home. If you are a landlord, you are SOL. If you're lucky, the new owners will hire you as the maintenance guy.

But how do you establish a claim? How long does it last after you wander away? What if you want to go on a six-month trip cataloguing butterflies in Brazil, and when you come back you find that some dirty hippy has moved into your house, because you weren't "using" it? This is one of the thorniest problems of usufruct, and I suspect it could only be worked out, somewhat imperfectly, by trial, error, and the creation of widely-acknowledged custom or common law.

Probably the easist way would be to estalbish community claims offices, like the offices that monitored and licensed gold panners in the 19th century. If you find a vacant house, the first thing you do is wander down to the office. Is it really vacant, or has the owner just forgotten to mow the lawn, or gone on vacation for a few months? If it is vacant, register your claim and move on in. To cement your claim, you should, as Locke urged and old American common law had it, mix a bit of your labour with the land. Fix the place up a bit. Mow the lawn. Plant some carrots or tulips. After a week or a month, the claims officer will wander by, see what you've done, and put a check mark next to your name. Home filled, usufruct-owner in place. (Anarcho-capitalists would no doubt see the claims office as a free-market, for-profit business, possibly with several competing officers, and the collectivists would much rather see a community effort to register property use/occupancy, but it amounts to the same thing in the end.)

Practically, the biggest hurdle to usufruct is probably cultural. We are very used to seeing property as a concrete thing that can be picked up and put down, left alone, but which is still attached as if by invisible threads to its owner. The idea of property without an owner is frightening for some people. A few decades ago, some anarchists in Holland started leaving white bicycles around Amsterdam for anyone to use and then leave when they were done. The police kept seizing them as "stolen property."

The neo-conservative view that private ownership of every resource would provide a better degree of stewardship than any kind of government or communal ownership also rears its head in this discussion. I really can't say just how ridiculous I find this idea. Let's leave aside the fact that a corporation with a five-year financial plan could easily strip mine or clear cut land to fulfil short-term shareholder demands, and look at the example of public parks. I mean small, community parks, with swing sets and a few sports fields. Would you rather they were owned by a private individual for profit (lots of billboard ads, or pay parking, or even paid admission) or by the park users? Sure, there would be lots of free riders, but a community parks group could probably handle keeping things in order pretty well.

In my final note, I'll say that many right anarchists and libertarians believe in something much like the current property rights system. But without a government and police force to enforce property rights, usufruct would become the only method of property distribution. Any private security force that defended someone's right to forbid use of unoccupied land would be a de facto government. And any collectivist group that walled off a section of "their" community "for future use" and stopped others from encroaching would be doing the same thing. And don't think people wouldn't try it.